Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017)
Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead begins in a liminal space: “here/not earth/not heaven, we can’t recall our white shirts/turned ruby gowns”. A space where there’s “no language for officer or law, no color to call white.” In this space, black bodies are scraped from soil and shaken from branches. “(P)lease, don’t call/us dead” Smith writes, “call us alive someplace better.” In the most quoted line of this collection, the speaker wishes for a place “where everything is sanctuary and nothing is a gun.” But there is engagement too in craving, in dark desires turned psalms, as in “bare”, when Smith writes, “If love is a room/of broken glass, leave me to dance/until my feet are memory./If love is a hole wide enough/to be God’s mouth, let me plunge/into that holy dark & forget/the color of light.” While it would be formally and poetically accurate to deem Don’t Call Us Dead a masterpiece, such a distinction would diminish its ferocity, urgency, gravity, and resonance. Perhaps it is safest to say that Don’t Call Us Dead is a Lazarus-level miracle, enacted ad-infinitum. If you haven’t already, watch Smith read “Dear White America” here. Then buy this book immediately. White folks, distribute a copy to everyone you know.
The Book Of Emergencies [2nd edition] (Five Oaks Press, 2017)
Like the Nautilus vessel’s deep-sea expeditions or Voyager’s entry into interstellar space, Rosemarie Dombrowski’s The Book Of Emergencies is a rare, revelatory inquiry into parts unknown. As she contends with the unique challenges of her son’s autism, Dombrowski is equal parts allegiant mother and absorbed anthropologist. It is in this latter role that Dombrowski allows the reader to explore a space that is so often relegated to the pathological or the private, resulting in a vade mecum of visceral, bittersweet discovery. The “17 Letters” section (inspired by TC Tolbert’s incredible ‘Dear Melissa’ series) is particularly poignant, with Dombrowski utilizing the epistolary to act as historian and cartographer both.
The Empty Season (Diode Editions, 2018)
Formally ingenious, visually seductive, and audaciously intimate, Catherine Bresner’s The Empty Season is a totem of our time. Integrating visual collage with musical scores, erasures, and hyperlinks, Bresner has a conductor’s orchestral command of form. But The Empty Season’s true perspicacity lies in the poems themselves—simultaneously dreamily lyric and razor-sharp, a master class in mixed diction and second person POV. The atmospheric momentum of this collection is akin to slow steps down a dark hallway where a killer could be hiding. But there is no killer, only glimpses of the uncanny for the reader, who sees in the speaker an unnerving doubling she cannot deny or forget. Warning: I learned the hard way that The Empty Season is not a book that is easily lent or returned. I highly suggest purchasing multiple copies.
True Ash (Available for pre-order, Black Lawrence Press, 2018)
Fiction / short stories
Elizabeth J. Colen and Carol Guess
Keenly intelligent, astonishingly prolific, and lyrically gifted across all genres, Elizabeth Colen and Carol Guess’s individual bodies of work boast some of the best writing the Pacific Northwest has the good fortune to lay claim to. In collaboration, they are a delicious, compulsively readable force to be reckoned with. The greatest strength in their seamlessly rendered short story collection, True Ash, is a deeply flawed cast of characters that orbit sinister Seattle corporation, Sucrawin. Fresh forays into the fantastical are balanced by a deft rendering of tech world zeitgeist that has transformed (some would say ruined) Seattle in recent years. The unexpected takeaway: True Ash is evidence that despite the numbing, microchipped, Orwellian milieu that threatens to extinguish life as we know it, we move and are moved by our longing for human connection and, as such, we remain.
Freshwater (Grove Press, 2018)
With her fierce, hypnotic Bildungsroman, Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi buries tired and harmful conventions of the traditional fictional canon, then soars high above the bones. Nigerian protagonist Ada is born, “with one foot on the other side.” In the first chapter, voices speak to the reader of their existence within the fetus, Ada, and their independent sojourns outside that body into liminal space. But when Ada is born, the voices are imprisoned inside her, making Ada a volatile child, divided into separate selves. As Ada matures and moves to America, a sexually violent event prompts the voices to crystallize, signaling Ada’s descent into madness. Emezi’s brilliant implementation of the unreliable narrator serves to underscore the intrinsic unreliability of every narration on topics of abuse, mental illness, sexual fluidity, and self-harm. By troubling the conventions of western psychology and colonialism and introducing Igbo spirituality, Emezi infuses richness and meaning into the very parameters by which mental illness is defined, restoring complexity, power, and an unlikely sovereign rootedness to the inner lives of those dismissed as crazy. Emezi’s lyricism and metarhythmic grace are rivaled only by the capacious mythological creation of an inner world unlike any other literature has to offer. For most readers, Freshwater will be a wholly unique experience. For those with mental illness, Freshwater will return you, violently, but gloriously, to yourself.